Author Archives: Jack Hartt

Plan now for a Fall-Winter garden

by Peter Heffelfinger

Posted July 5, 2020

 

Pivot Point

Having just passed the summer solstice, the garden is at its seasonal pivot point. Even as summer begins, hopefully with some good sunny weather to end the extended rains, the days are getting slightly shorter. It’s time to start planning for fall and winter crops. Summer harvests will start to pile up, the weather will assuredly turn dry and hot, and watering will become the daily issue. But amidst all the garden rush, it pays to start planning now where the following season’s plantings will go.

The first winter crop I think of is leeks. Since this year’s onions have been hindered by the rains, developing mold on the bulbs, or generally not thriving, I turn to leeks, the reliable allium. Being an extended stem rather than a terminal bulb, they resist rot in the ground, and hold up all winter long against the cold and the wet. I already have an early, summer/fall leek crop going, but I need to put in a second wave of leeks that will mature in the fall and continue to be harvested through the winter months. No need for drying and storage. The leeks are always in the ground, ready for use, whatever the weather.

The outer leek sheaths will get eventually soft and mushy by mid-winter, but with a simple stripping, the clean white inner core is ready for the pot. The key is the hardy root system that keeps growing slowly all winter. When you dig up a hefty leek in February, a large bolus of soil comes out as well, held onto by the extensive white roots. To form that solid foundation get them in the ground now so they can slowly develop all summer and into the fall. The reward will come in the short days of winter.

 

Other Fall Plantings

The nursery starts for fall plantings began showing up a few weeks ago, so seek them out before they disappear in this year of increased demand for garden supplies. Look for late varieties of cabbage, such as January King, as well as hardy collards. Seek out fall and winter varieties of broccoli and cauliflower, as well as any of the hardy kales. There is also the hardy Tatsoi mustard, the standard Winter Bloomsdale spinach, plus Daikon and Black Spanish winter radishes. Lots to choose from if you look. Not to forget the perennial garlic chives, which will stay green if you keep it protected during cold spells.

Last winter I had fresh turnip greens lasting all the way into spring from a fall-sown Tokyo Cross type designed to produce leafy tops, rather than roots. The large woody root, eventually rising above ground like a small dome, kept sending up fresh sprouts deep into spring, trying to go to seed. As long as I kept snacking on the shoots and buds, it kept sending up new growth. At the end, the dome was a hollow shell that came easily out of the soil, but it had completed its mission, like some long-lived interplanetary voyager with little leafy antennas.

 

Summer Duties

At this point in the season, things have settled into a regular pattern:

watering, weeding, and harvesting. In the hoop house, the cherry tomato plants have grown to the ceiling and will need to be trimmed; the regular tomatoes have filled out their cages and should start setting more fruit in the warm weather. Now is the time to start thinning out the suckers and removing central foliage to allow better air circulation.

The peppers are starting to form and ripen, along with the first cucumbers and eggplants. Each day I help the curlicued tendrils of the cucumber vines grab onto the trellis to help support the coming weight of the mature cukes. Outside, the pole beans are climbing their trellis, and there again I make sure the emerging vines at the ground level latch onto the nearest vertical support. Vegetable kindergarten, helping little hands grab onto things.

 

Bee Swarm Update

With the loss of the queen and some of the bees, I thought the hive had failed, since I hadn’t seen any bees in flight for days on end during the recent cold and wet weather. After a follow-up inspection, our keeper said all was ok. The newly installed queen had been busy making new brood to fill out combs, with the workers staying at home, relying on bottled sugar water. On the first sunny day two weeks later the restored bees were out again, finding the waiting winter squash and zucchini blossoms. Now that the first 6-inch zucchinis have appeared, it’s truly summer.

 

The Wet and the Dry

By Peter Heffelfinger

June 29, 2020

 

The Wet

It certainly has been a wet month, with hard rains causing germination or mold problems. I am still waiting to see if my third planting of corn will sprout enough to fill in the bare soil in the rows from the first two disappointing seedings. As well, some of the 6-inch high onion plants developed mold around the bulbs and had to be discarded. But the peas soaked up all the rain and kept climbing up what seemed like an endless water spout.

Another sign of the high moisture level was the arrival of aphids, hiding in their usual beginning spot, deep inside the tender central growing tips of brassicas, in this case a bed of young Lacinato kale. An easy treatment is to spray the leaf cluster area with a light solution of detergent and water. The soap attacks the soft exoskeleton of the aphids that are sucking out the juices of the plant. Once aphids are present on a crop, keep a constant watch for their reappearance and keep spraying them at first sight. The soap solution does not affect the plant tissues, and is easily washed off, usually by the next garden watering. Check the site for several days to make sure there are no remaining aphids present, keep an eye out for any re-occurrence, and have the soap spray bottle at hand.

Aphids often spread to other plants, especially inside the top buds of Brussels sprouts. Check the long-standing plants often, carefully unfolding the tightly wrapped central growing cluster of leaves at the top of the stalk. Drench with the soapy solution if there are aphids hiding deep inside, and make sure to check the lower side-buds as well, once they start to form over the summer. In general, if the stems of any plant do get covered with aphids, discard the entire plant, in order to immediately to check the infestation. Aphids are endemic here, and will keep reappearing at intervals; but careful, organic pest management will control them.

There’s a good side to all the rain, though. The early broccoli crop has been abundant, the spring cabbages are already reaching full size, and the first small white crowns of cauliflower are forming. With our extended daylight hours of summer, cauliflower heads may start to sprout or discolor prematurely before getting full-sized. Lightly cover the central area of the plant by cracking, but not completely severing, the stems of a few of the outer cauliflower leaves and then folding them over the emerging heads. Complete the makeshift parasol by adding on top a few large, aged cabbage leaves. Keep the cauliflower heads in the dark. Wait for the head to grow to full size and pick while the curds are still tight. Fresh, homegrown cauliflower eaten straight from the garden is incredibly sweet compared to the commercial product that has been aging in transport.

A note on the garlic harvest. Some gardeners in the Dewey Beach area had to pull their already-mature garlic last week. For my crop out in the Valley, the last of the scapes have just been removed. Hopefully there will be a dry spell of our Mediterranean-style summer to properly mature the plants just before lifting in mid-July. For more information on when to harvest garlic, see the link below to the recent New York Times article on Filaree Garlic Farm, a commercial garlic seed grower in the Okanogan. Nice to know an extensive seed bank of the many types of garlic from all over the world exists on the dry side of our state. (Thanks to Jan Hersey for sending me the link.)

 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/realestate/grow-garlic-garden-organic.html?smid=em-share

[ A subscription to the NY Times is required to read this article]

 

The Dry

Inside the hoop house, the main issue is watering, given the heat buildup that starts each morning as soon as the early sun hits the walls. I try to conserve water since I rely on an Artesian well that slows down in late August. Over the years I’ve tried various mulches, including black plastic and biodegradable paper mulch, to keep the soil moist, but I now prefer to leave the soil open to the warm air. I currently water using the half-gallon black plastic pots the tomato plants came in to make individual mini-cisterns half-buried next to the stems of each plant. The pots create an efficient deep-watering system.

For tomatoes, I cut the bottom off the thin-walled rectangular pots and drive the edges halfway down into a small, excavated area next to the plant and berm up soil around the outer sides of the pot. I fill the pots with a hose, letting the water seep down to the roots, with no leaks off the side of the raised mound. I do water the surface soil around the stem as well, but the pots supply the bulk of the irrigation.

For peppers, which don’t need quite the same volume of water, I use the thicker-walled cylindrical pots as is. The bottom drainage holes are buried 2-3 inches deep; the pot is located in between the plants, which are spaced 18” apart in the row. As with the tomatoes I water the soil surface around the stem of the plant a bit as well, to keep the surface moist, but most of the irrigation filters down to the roots. 

For both the tomatoes and peppers I let the cold well water warm up for a day in a 50-gallon barrel before applying it, via a gravity-fed hose, to what are originally tropical plants now being grown in a northern temperate zone. Keep their feet warm and wait for that first red tomato or full-sized pepper.

Surfing the Rain

By Peter Heffelfinger

June 22, 2020

It has been a wet June, which has caused germination problems in some crops, but has allowed others, if planted at the right time, to thrive. I think of it as being like surfing: sometimes you catch the wave and sometimes the wave catches you.

I usually plant corn on June 1st, waiting for warm soil and settled weather. My garden site is generally damp and chilly all spring, being adjacent to a year round stream and cooled by onshore breezes. In past years, I’ve noted that other early bird gardeners who plant in mid-May often suffer from rotted seed and have to replant. Better to wait, plant successfully once and have a good harvest even if a week or two later in the season.

This year, having heard that one nearby gardener already had 4-inch high corn by late May, I succumbed to competitive garden envy and jumped the gun by planting seed on a sunny and warm May 28th. With our summers getting longer and warmer, all would be fine. Of course we soon had heavy rain and my corn barely came up. So I replanted a few weeks later. And then a second heavy rain ensued. So, finally by the last day of spring I spot-seeded a third time in between the few hardy sprouts that had managed to come up previously, hoping that I might get a small, mixed batch of corn by mid-September. Come nightfall, rain again. Wipe out, I’m sure. Now, I don’t expect anything like my usual stands of standard yellow, bi-color, and tall white corn. The early May corn planters got to ride the June waves of rain. Knee-high corn by the 14th of July.

But some other crops, planted on schedule in early spring, got a strong push from the wet weather. By mid-May the brassicas were pushing up tight against the tops of their floating row covers: broccoli, green and red cabbages, as well as Brussels Sprouts and early cauliflower. The Sugar Snap and oriental snow peas also took off in the cool weather. The tall snow peas have already reached the top of their 8-foot fencing and will need higher supports, not to mention a ladder for harvesting. The winter squash vines are filling in the gaps between their spaced hills, and the pole beans are starting to climb their trellis. Not to forget the abundant lettuces. So I shouldn’t complain. Nice to catch the wave when it comes.

Bee Swarm
While putting in tomato plant supports in my hoop house this past weekend I suddenly heard a very insistent hum, a loud buzzing of insects. Looking out to the nearby bee hives I saw a swirling, vertical cone of ascending bees getting larger and further away from their ground level boxes. The Queen Bee was leaving and taking all her workers with her. Fortunately the swarm settled into the overgrown vines on a nearby power pole instead of disappearing. The bees, now in a tight protective ball around the Queen, were still there when the beekeeper arrived an hour later. With a large bucket on the end of a long pole, he knocked groups of the bees into the bucket, and deposited the angry hummers into a large box on the ground. He hoped to catch the Queen, but she and her reduced retinue escaped. The next day the captured bees were given a new queen in a new hive. I hope the Queens who stayed home will continue to send out their pollen gathering workers to the flowering vegetables in the garden. We need the bees.

Mid-June in the Garden

by Peter Heffelfinger

Posted June 15, 2020

Early Herbs

In late April and early May, when I transplanted tomatoes into the hoop house, I also put in three pots of basil plants in a warm corner to guarantee an early supply of the herb to go with the first ripe tomatoes. I am already pinching off the lead buds to prevent the plants from forming flowers. Keep them bushy and green. Otherwise one has to wait until the warmth of June to plant basil outdoors.

I also have a perennial bed of white-flowering Greek oregano that is just starting to form buds. It escaped from the garden soil where I originally planted it years ago and took up permanent residence in the dry, rocky fill of a old driveway. Some herbs thrive under stress. I harvest it just as the flowers start to bloom and hang the long stems in bunches to dry in the cool pantry. Note: the common purple-flowered oregano is very bland in comparison to the more spicy Greek strain.

Oregano

This past week I put in starts of coriander that will flavor the fresh salsa made from the tomatoes. Coriander goes to seed extremely quickly, so keep the flowers picked off and do multiple plantings for a steady supply all summer. The same technique applies to arugula, which will form flowers as soon as possible given our long hours of summer daylight. Last fall I planted some perennial, olive-leaved arugula, which overwintered successfully in large planters by the house, and is only showing a few flowers so far this spring. Hopefully the plants will continue on for another season. Note: it is a very strong-tasting variety of arugula that gets more pungent with age.

The cucumber vines are climbing the trellis in the hoop house, both the slicers for salad and the pickling types. This year I am trying a small Persian variety used for Mediterranean-style quick pickles, obtained from the local Uprising Seeds company, as well as a standard pickle type from Joe’s Garden Nursery in Bellingham. So, for fresh seed heads of dill for pickles, dill transplants should go in now, if you haven’t already planted seed earlier. I use the dill fronds in salads and for mixing with a soft cheese for an appetizer spread.

Continuing the same anise-flavor pattern, I put in a half dozen bulb fennel plants, for both the bulb slices dipped in anchovy-flavored olive oil and the feathery leaves that can be roasted with summer salmon. Note: there is also frond fennel, grown solely for the leaves and the seed. And if you walk around Old Town Anacortes in mid-summer, you’ll find a coarse wild fennel growing in the alleys.

Pea Heaven

Peas are coming on strong, both the snap variety and my personal favorite the Oriental snow peas. Being of a certain height, I like to grow the tall varieties of both types for ease of picking and for an extended growing season, but they do need some kind of trellis or fencing. This year I’m trying 8-foot tall panels of cattle guard fencing, along with twine strung horizontally to hold in the wandering pea vines. I am also trying a standard bush snap pea, which is listed as self-supporting, but really needs lots of short fence posts and some encircling twine to stay upright. The neighbor kids like the shorter bushes since the peas are at their height. Peas for all.

Garlic Scape Season

The first sign of the coming garlic harvest is the appearance of the scapes (curved seed stalks) on the hard-neck garlic. (Soft-neck garlic for braiding does not produce scapes.) Remove the scapes in order to promote the development of the bulbs below ground. Make sure you get them all, as they can hide in between the leaves. Scapes can be stir-fried, cut into rounds for soup, made into pesto, or seared on the grill. To freeze: cut the stems into short lengths, blanch quickly, chill in cold water, and freeze in a thin layer on a rimmed baking pan. Pack loosely in bags for winter soups. Scapes are mostly mild in garlic flavor, but I do find the Korean Red scapes a bit more zingy.

Garlic bulb harvest comes 2-3 weeks after the scape removal, usually in early July, depending on the weather. With all the heavy rain recently, I hope the bulbs dry out enough to avoid fungus and mold. Some of my shallots are showing mold already. Shallots are a luxury item; garlic is a necessity, so I hope our summer dry season begins soon.

 

 

 

 

How to Perennialize Brassicas

Story and Photos by Sequoia Ferrel

June 10, 2020

I know. I made that up. It isn’t a verb. But in the relatively mild winters of the Pacific Northwest, we can sometimes grow brassicas as perennials, hence I like to “perennialize” some of mine.

After you harvest a cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and the like, if you leave the plant in the garden, most often it will continue to grow for years. I once had a purple-sprouting broccoli plant growing for multiple years before I cut it out.

The basic strategy is this: after you harvest your crop, you leave the plant to do its thing, which is flower and set seed. If you try to interfere by cutting off the sprouts it will be futile because the plant won’t give up on making its seed. But once the seed is made, eventually the plant will put out lots of new growth, usually around its base, and you can prune off all the old growth.

If you leave all the new sprouts, the plant will dissipate its energy and you might get 20 tiny cauliflowers (or whatever it is you’re growing). So you’ll want to thin the new growth by breaking or cutting them off.

You may have to keep thinning if the plant is determined to make lots of shoots. If you want, just leave one shoot or try for 2 or 3 (or more). Multiple shoots will sometimes still create good-sized stalks and maybe you’d rather have smaller heads anyway. Then next spring, you’ll get your second harvest much earlier than if you had planted new starts. And you can do this again and again each year.

I’ve had the best results with cauliflower, possibly because it doesn’t seem to make flower stalks once you rob it of its main flower (the cauliflower). I’ve sometimes been able to cut a cabbage in the fall and have the plant make a new cabbage but sometimes it will want to make a flower stalk. I haven’t quite figured out the timing on that, but you should be able to coax another cabbage out the next season.

So if you don’t need the garden space for something else and you like to experiment, go ahead and try to “perennialize” some of your favorite brassica veggies.

 

Above: Big Cauliflower

The second picture (below left) shows one plant that put up 3 good sized cauliflower stalks, one of which had already been cut. The two pictures on the right below show the new shoots coming up after a broccoli (or some brassica) has been cut back. And next, the same plant after being pruned back to the two strongest shoots

A New Backyard Pest; and much more

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted June 8, 2020

A new backyard pest

I spent several days this week dealing with an infestation of what looked like tiny, black, leaf-eating caterpillars that swarmed over a mature stand of highbush cranberry shrubs and also onto one nearby snowball bush. The leaves were skeletonized, leaving the stems and veins intact, by what resembled tiny leeches with legs, crawling up the main trunks to get to the foliage. The only solution was to cut down the tall shrubs completely and take them to the burn pile for immediate incineration. I am hoping I got rid of enough of the pests before they invade a nearby prized Japanese maple or a Korean dogwood that is in full bloom.

The soft cranberry shrub leaves were more susceptible than the thicker leaves on an adjacent shiny laurel, which was also covered by what looked like sticky frass, the technical term for insect droppings. So the laurel went as well, just to be safe. The recent heavy rains and lush undergrowth may have been part of the cause, but it is the first time I have seen such an invasion on mature shrubs that I have been growing and pruning for several decades. It certainly felt like an outbreak that had to be dealt with firmly. I will be on the lookout for further signs and will try to identify the critters specifically.

 

Tomato pollination

As the tomatoes climb up their supports and start to flower, it is important to remember that in order to set fruit the plants need to be kept above 50F degrees at night. When closing up the hoop house in the evening to maintain the heat, I give the tomato cages a quick shake to get the pollen out into into the air. Hopefully the small green buttons of nascent tomatoes will soon start to appear. The cherry tomatoes always come first, given their small size, leading the way for the larger standard varieties.

 

Vegetable perennials: artichokes and asparagus

I grow a bed of the standard Green Globe artichokes, which are just coming on. They are a welcome treat, but somewhat bland-tasting, and must be picked before they get too tough. I do have one bush of purple artichokes, Violetta de Provence, an Italian variety that produces smaller chokes, but with a much more delicate flavor. When picked early, you can eat almost the entire bud. Gourmet thistles.

The other garden perennial is the bed of asparagus, which is just reaching maturity in its third season. It has been worth the wait. Now one can pick a high percentage of the stalks, which are decidedly sweet when eaten straight from the garden. A key to a sustained harvest is to keep the bed well watered as the roots send up the shoots.

 

Broccoli

The first rush of ripe broccoli is also here, having recently emerged from their floating row cover. I blanch the flowerets for a few minutes just until they turn bright green, then quickly chill in cold water. I like them as an appetizer dipped into a sauce of mayonnaise mixed with a bit of dry mustard and a spritz of lemon juice. I have also found that the plain stems can be eaten as well if you cut them into small slices or julienned strips and blanch them a bit longer than the tops before chilling. If the stem is particularly tough, use a vegetable peeler to get rid of the thick skin. Eat the whole vegetable.

Late Spring in the Garden

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted June 1, 2020

 

First Brassicas

The early spring plantings of brassicas finally emerged this week from their protective cocoon of floating row cover, revealing small heads of broccoli that will be cutting size soon, as well as cabbages just starting to head up. It’s always a pleasure to free up the maturing plants straining against the white cloth, having successfully avoided any root maggot fly infestation, and only a few snails hiding out on the lower leaves. It is also a reminder that the late spring/early summer crop of brassica starts will need to go in soon. The cycle of year-round cole plants keeps turning.

Corn

I usually wait until June 1st to plant corn, allowing the soil to heat up to 60F degrees. Too often early sowings succumb to seed rot and poor germination. This year I jumped the gun a bit during the sunny week after Memorial Day and got my corn planted. Hopefully the day of rain that came soon after will be just enough to start the seed growing, but not too much to cause a problem.


Corn is always a favorite crop, if you have the space to grow it, as well as a reliable supply of water. Corn plants require consistent watering for their tall stalks, large leaves and the eventual ears. I enjoy the sound of the rustling leaves in the wind, and am always amazed at the process of the tassels shedding pollen down to fertilize the delicate hairs that lead to each individual kernel.
With the recent pattern of warmer summers, sweet corn has become more reliable to grow in the Northwest garden. I plant three varieties, a standard yellow such as Bodacious, a bi-color called Peach & Cream, and my favorite, a long-season white such as Silver King.
Corn is one of the easiest vegetables to process for freezing. I blanch the ears for several minutes in boiling water, quickly chill in cold water to stop the cooking, and then slice off the kernels with a sharp knife. To preserve the real sweetness of fresh corn, use the back of the knife blade to scrape down all the milky juice from the cob and mix it in with the cut kernels. When defrosted and cooked for just a few minutes you will have the taste of fresh corn, almost as good as ears of corn fresh picked from the garden.

Tomatoes, Peppers, and Cukes

In the hoop house, tomato plants are leafing out vigorously and climbing up the rungs of the cages and a few flowers are appearing. The important thing is to trim off any lower leaf stems touching the soil, to avoid fungus infections. Consistent watering is required to promote steady growth as well as to avoid leaf curling, which can be a sign of either too much or too little water. To complicate matters, individual varieties may show different levels of water tolerance. Out of my 20 tomato plants, only one variety, a Sweet Million cherry tomato, has signs of leaf curl but still looks healthy, so I eased up on the water a bit. Gardening is always a mix of monitoring and adjusting.

Some of my peppers, bought early on from one source, were lagging behind others purchased later, so I dosed the smaller plants one time with liquid fish fertilizer, 2 tbsp. per gallon of water, to green them up a bit. I also pinched back all the peppers after they were planted, removing the first solo top buds in order to encourage branching and a greater number of secondary buds.

The cucumbers are finding their way onto their wire trellis, from the early Marketmore slicers, to the later planted Persians just starting appear, as well as a few pickling cuke starts just added to round out the collection. At some point in the summer there will be a first salad featuring homegrown cukes, tomatoes, and peppers to go with all the fresh lettuce that has been growing outside the hoop house.

Beginning a Basic Backyard Compost Pile

By Callie Martin

In the heat and cool of May, our gardens soon become jungles. As you weed, snip, and snack, collections for your home compost are also building. If you’re new to backyard composting, spring is a great time to start! Composting happens naturally, as one of nature’s methods for returning the nutrients to the health of the soil. With a few handy skills, you can make compost happen a little faster than nature’s pace, and right in alignment with amending the garden beds for fall.

Skill 1: Build Your Compost Critter Salad

Think of your compost pile like putting together a dinner salad. Begin your heap with a mix of traditional yard waste, grass clippings, twigs, some weeds, and prunings. I like to start with a minimum of a cubic yard sized pile, because it takes less sweat equity to manage and speeds up the composting process. Be sure to set up your heap somewhere near a water source, and one that is easy to access by wheelbarrow.

A mixture of both green and brown materials are essential to fire up the chemical reaction of decay. By mixing the two, you invite millions of microorganisms, soil insects, bacteria and healthy fungi to join in on something of a Salsa ‘dance off’ in your compost pile. Their munching and moving creates heat and in turn, a faster, usable finished compost.

Color isn’t the only characteristic that differentiates a “green” material from a “brown” one. Green materials tend to be moist and colorful, while browns tend to be dry and colorless. Mix them in a 3:1 ratio, where you combine three handfuls of browns for every one handful of greens to cook up a balanced food source for the soil critters.

Gathering materials from your garden in the form of “greens” and “browns” may look something like this:

Greens Browns
Weeds Shredded paper (newspaper or office shreddings)
Grass clippings Straw
Twiggy prunings Dryer lint
Leaves Cardboard
Dead headed flowers Woodchips
Coffee grounds and loose leaf tea Leafless twigs and sticks

Make sure you leave your compost pile free of the following:

  • Grass clippings treated with chemical lawn fertilizers
  • Diseased plant trimmings
  • Large clods of dirt or sod (too difficult to turn with a pitchfork)
  • Invasive weeds
  • Dog and cat manures
  • Food scraps from the kitchen. While valuable for composting, food scraps are best placed in closed composting systems. Added to open-air compost piles, food scraps may draw rodents who’d love the chance to nap, nest and graze in a jackpot of delicious treats.

Left:

A quick affordable way to create a backyard compost heap

 

 

Skill 2: Toss Your Compost Critter Salad

The same compost critters that love munching your green and brown compost mixture also love having adequate amounts of moisture and oxygen. Once your pile has reached a cubic yard in size, pull out your pitchfork and turn the pile over once every 7-10 days. Turning your compost increases airflow, speeds up decomposition, and creates variance for the critters’ diets. When it comes to backyard composting, there’s no such thing as too much turning. Extra oxygenation brings relief to a pile that is not heating up (60 degrees F or below) or is too hot (above 160 degrees F).

Skill 3: Dress Your Compost Critter Salad (With Water)
A dry pile is a lifeless pile, or at maximum, very slow to decay. A moisture balance that feels like a wrung out sponge or a piece of moist chocolate cake is best. If it feels like my compost is too dry, I’ll give it a spray as I turn it. However, too much moisture can cause problems. Like skin, soil and compost have pores. These pores are actually small pockets of oxygen. If those pores get water-logged, the oxygen levels drop below what is normal for the helpful compost critters. Even worse, your compost will begin to smell poorly, which is no fun to show off to your gardening friends.

Skill 4: Adding Extras

There are three essential tools to becoming a great composter:

  • A pitchfork
  • A long-wand compost thermometer
  • A machete

The machete chops materials down to the size soil critters can get at, the pitchfork is the easiest tool to toss with, and a long wand thermometer shows you the heating and cooling trends of your pile. To kill basic weed seeds like dandelions, it’s best if your compost reaches 135 degrees F at least three times before heading into its curing phase. Curing takes place toward the end of the composting process, when you allow your pile to rest for 4-6 weeks in order to finish decomposing.

Skill 5: Celebrating Success

Put on your gloves, grab a pitchfork and a smile and join in on the miraculous journey to making compost happen in your backyard this spring. By using it, you’ll see improvements in waste generation from your house and yard, better water retention in your garden beds, improved drainage in soils, and an overall healthier backyard. You can apply compost in many different ways. Mix it into your vegetable garden; use it as a nutrient-rich, weed-suppressing mulch; or sprinkle it across your lawn at the beginning of fall or spring as organic fertilizer—the options won’t let you down. Composting is easy to do! The health and wealth of your yard and garden will be visible for years to come.

A Potato Problem; and a Perennial Brassica

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted May 25, 2020
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I’ve grown potatoes successfully for many years, always making sure to rotate my plantings each year, and to avoid disease using new potato seed instead of the last of my stored potatoes. I try to get mostly egg-sized seed potatoes to plant whole, and cut any larger ones into separate pieces with at least 2-3 eyes. I dry the cut ones for a day, to let the cut surface dry out.

This year, however, whole sections of the rows never sprouted, particularly the favorite Yukon Golds, with failure also in parts of the Cal Whites and a few of the Red Lasodas. When unearthed, the affected seed potatoes were all rotted, with no sprouts, particularly the ones that had been cut. Was the problem in the seed itself or in the soil? Or did the cutting open them to fungi? The area had been in pole beans and winter squash last year, and corn the year before, so soil rotation should not have been a concern. Plus, I had grown potatoes there in prior years. Very disappointing, since potatoes are as an easy and usually reliable crop.

Although there would be plenty of time to replant, the supply of seed potatoes is long gone, given this year’s surge in gardening interest. When a garden setback occurs, the best thing is to fill the gap quickly. So I planted winter squash starts to cover the bare soil: Cinderella‘s Coach, Kabocha, and Sweetmeat. Hopefully the fact that winter squash and pumpkins had been planted in the same area last year will not be an issue. Plus, the plot had a winter cover crop of annual rye that had been tilled in. Gardens are always an experiment and often an exercise in overcoming adversity.

Note: if anyone else had problems with their seed potatoes this year, please let me know. As in past years, my seed came from the hardware store in town.

A Perennial Brassica

Many years ago I received a gift packet of seeds from a pair of pilgrims who had walked the Camino and then returned the next year to serve as hostel hosts on the Path. The seed was an extremely frost-resistant variety of Kale, with large flat leaves like collards, and commonly grown in gardens in Galicia, thriving in the rainy winter coastal climate similar to the Maritime Northwest. Most unusual for a brassica, it was a perennial, not dying back after going to seed the second season. Each year the plant gets larger and bushier, makes flowers for seed, and surrounds itself with multitudes of seedlings. Fittingly, the tall, thick stalks are fashioned by local craftsmen along the Camino into lightweight walking sticks for the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella. Holy Brassica.

Sadly, the couple who had originally brought me the seed have now both passed on. So, in their memory I maintained several of these everlasting Spanish kales, until finally the plants got too large and had to be removed to make space. But the original plants left behind a store of viable seed in the soil. Even after several years, I found numerous seedlings sprouting up where the parent plants had been. So, as a way of perpetuating the variety, I transplanted them this year into super-sized pots meant for small trees and installed them as mementos in my non-vegetable backyard, hoping they will survive the deer who graze there each evening. I look forward to seeing the large green leaves, as emblematic to me of the Camino as the mileposts there marked with the sign of the pilgrim’s scallop shell.

Note: the variety is officially known as Cabbage-Kale, and originated in the Isle of Jersey.

 

Garden Structures

With Betty Carteret and Anna and Torgy Torgersen

 

“The raised beds that Eric built me are not only great looking but are a great relief for a gardener with arthritic knees. We repurposed leftover siding from the house to build the raised beds, which match the house too. It’s easy to create a little hoop house with netting to deter deer (shown in photo) or floating row cover for heat and weather protection.  
 

“I use cold frames, plastic sheeting, and water in 2 liter plastic bottles to warm up those heat-loving tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.  These techniques have worked well for me in the past.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


To keep their ten spaghetti squash vines up off the ground, and growing toward the sunny south, Anna asked Torgy to build two, flat, lath frameworks that had 6 x 6-inch spaces for the squashes to hang through. As the vines grew and flowered, Anna wove them in and out of the lath strips. Developing  squashes were tucked down through the holes, but stayed high enough not to touch the soil. When the vines died, 27 squashes were ripe and ready to harvest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Because hungry deer are a constant problem in our backyard, Torgy constructed an easy-to-remove, hoop house over the raised bed to protect low-growing vegetables like lettuce and greens. He took 1 x 4 lumber, and made a frame that fit over the top of the raised bed. Then he fastened sheep fencing (wire) to one of the long sides of the frame and arched it over to the other side, creating a tunnel. Next, he closed both ends of the tunnel with more fencing. He bent lath strips and attached them to the inside of the tunnel to reinforce it. By placing a stake in the middle of one of the sides of the structure, the hoop house can be tipped to allow the gardener to weed or harvest. In the early spring, Reemay or plastic film could be stretched over the wire to create a cold frame.